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A New Concept for a New Museum

by Jack D. Herbert

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1964-65 Season

MHS Transactions were originally published by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make online versions available as a free, public service. As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers. They should not be construed to represent the views of today’s Manitoba Historical Society.

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There are many ways of looking at a museum, and I suppose what a person really sees when he looks at one (in his mind's eye) depends as much on his own experience and philosophy as the museum itself. "Beauty", as everyone knows, is said to lie "in the eye of the beholder".

Everyone tends to see things a little differently from everyone else. So I think I'd better take a little time and tell you what I mean when I'm talking about a museum.

Museums in the middle of the 20th century scarcely resemble those of even 50 years ago, let alone the first ones. We generally credit a handful of European princes about 500 years ago with starting the first museums. They collected for their own enjoyment - and I suspect for the purpose of impressing each other. Anyway, the first museums were collections of rare, beautiful and precious things rarely seen by anyone but the wealthy princes and noblemen who collected them.

Today, besides being treasure houses of beauty, they have become great research centres; virtual universities of the common man. In between there has been a long, slow evolutionary period. The first large collection to be opened to the public was in France, when the Jardin du Roi was opened in 1635. The British Museum was built in 1753; the Louvre opened forty years later.

The idea that the museum had a teaching mission was first recognized on this continent - though not until well into the 19th century. The first public museum in the United States was opened in 1773. In Canada - and this may surprise you - the first public museum opened in Saint John., N.B., about 1853, I think. As I have indicated, museum collections were first organized for the purpose of delighting the eye of a few beholders, and the concept that they had an educational and cultural role came slowly. We are accustomed to associate the curator-scholar with the museum collection today - but the fact is that the great work of scientific classification, systematic arrangement and specialized study didn't get under way until the 18th century. Even then the idea persisted for generations that the museum was there for the use of the specialized scholar. Finally, in the late 19th century, in the U.S.A., there developed the concept that the museum must talk to the common man.

It was not what you had in your museum that counted, but what you did with it.

Finally - probably due to the introduction of progressive income taxes and succession duties - the support of the museum passed from the hands of a few wealthy potentates to the public treasury. The democratization of the museum became complete. True, many great private collections remain but, even where private control persists, management more and more is passing into the hands of foundations. Probably the Glenbow Foundation in Calgary is the best known to western Canadians.

It is axiomatic that the principle of public support sooner or later links arms with the concept of the greatest good to the greatest number. When this happened to museums, for a while it was considered sufficient to merely amuse or entertain. Today, however, we are convinced that our role is to educate - not only to provide a supplementary series of teaching facilities for the use of classroom teachers, but also to create an attractive environment and milieu for the continuing benefit of the adult who wishes to educate himself at his own pace.

The museum has become a communicator for the purpose of interpreting art, nature, history, science, or what have you, to the widest possible audience - and we feel that we are justified in using every available technique of communication - not only to reach out and bring visitors into the museum, but also to present our story in their own homes through the medium of television.

It is true a museum can be many things. It is a collection of scientific, historic or artistic objects: it is a place to do research; it is a medium of communication. Its major function is perhaps interpretation. "Interpretation", Freeman Tilden has said, is "... the revelation of a larger truth that lies behind a statement of fact ..." "An educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by first hand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information."

Therefore, if you accept that a museum is all these things - and I do - it follows that the modern museum can become a powerful social instrument - a social instrument with a prime purpose. Dr. Albert Parr is the great scientist of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, employed as planning consultant on the new Manitoba Museum. He defines that purpose in simple words with profound meaning, "... to help man to understand himself, his circumstances, his functions, and his world".

So it has been decided that Manitoba shall have a new museum.

The Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature. This time the museum will be provided with a base of public and private support which will make it possible for it to flourish in a way which was always denied the old one. It is going to get a magnificent building and the staff it could never afford before. However, it is not my purpose today to talk about either the building or the staff - planning for the first is only partially complete and for the second has not really begun. What I want to talk about is the concept. Manitoba is to have a Museum of Man and Nature. Why?

When you're starting from scratch I suppose you can plan for almost anything. If it's a museum and you can find the objects it could be a museum of history, a museum of natural science, a museum of science and technology, or perhaps a museum of art. After two years of study, Dr. Parr has recommended, and the Manitoba Museum Association has accepted, a Museum of Man and Nature. Not a bifurcated museum, which on the one hand will deal with natural history and on the other with human history, but a museum which will portray man and nature as parts of an indivisible whole - in other words, man in his environment.

With this in mind, let's take a look at Manitoba today. It is a piece of North American geography, populated by people of largely European stock, organized as a political unit in a system adapted from Old-World political philosophy to fit a New-World situation.

It lies astraddle of the line separating one of the oldest geological formations on the continent - the Canadian Shield - from one of the most recent - the Canadian prairies. This has done more to shape Manitoba's development than any other single fact.

On the one hand it has made it possible for Manitoba to become a great farming province, and on the other to develop her huge sources of power and the minerals which are now changing her economy. Because of it Manitoba has a resource-based economy. Because of it, within Manitoba's borders lie two great hubs of communication. Both originally based on water, one lies at the north end of Lake Winnipeg and one at the south. Between them, they decreed Manitoba's dominant position in the North American fur-trade - and for close to 200 years dictated her history. The southern one in time gave way from water to steel but the change continued to be based on the relationship between the Shield and the prairies. It determined the evolution and growth of Metropolitan Winnipeg - as a distributing, industrial, political and cultural centre - until the rest of Manitoba has become merely its domain.

In terms of human history most of the people in Manitoba today are newcomers. Newcomers, at least by reference to other continents. Its settled population is considerably less than two centuries old and of these three-quarters count their Canadian heritage in less than four generations. As newcomers, Manitoba's population brought many cultures from many lands. Professor William Morton has pointed out that "Few Manitobans can pass a day without meeting at least one person of different background." In some respects the province is a melting pot but it is one which has had hardly enough time to melt. It is, therefore, not possible to understand the history of Manitoba without understanding her ethnology. That includes the ethnology of both her original inhabitants and her new settlers, and for her new settlers, it includes the ethnology of the old world as well as the new.

The theme - Man and Nature - then, is a logical one for a museum for Manitoba at this point in history. There are reasons of a universal nature too that are just as cogent and compelling.

It has always been important for man to understand the world of nature - the earth which is the source and environment of human existence. It is also important - perhaps as never before - for man to understand himself and his neighbours and his interaction with them in an environment which today embraces all men. Today it is not only man's immediate environment which concerns him, but his total environment, including the world of space. So a museum of Man and Nature has every reason to include a planetarium.

Every organism on this earth with one exception is limited geographically to an area known as its range. This is determined by a combination of conditions-including the availability of food, space and climate, to mention a few. No organism survives longer than the combination that suits it.

Man is the great exception to this rule. He is the only creature yet evolved on this planet which has almost unlimited ability to alter the conditions of its existence. In other words, while all other creatures are almost totally incapable of influencing their environment, man is almost unlimited in this capacity. He is, therefore, not limited in his range. As a result, he has not only flung himself completely around this planet, but now is also trying to fling himself from this planet to still others. Man's range now includes space itself.

Man, like other organisms, has to compete with other species and also like them sooner or later has to compete within his own species for range. He competes for range with animals, insects, fungi, viruses and plants, to mention a few outside species - but he competes with other men for range also. When this occurs, it almost always results in someone moving on. The history of migration, in fact, is more often than not the story of people reacting to population pressure - usually on a static economy. True, emigration is sometimes due to other factors such as religion or politics, but economics has usually been the determining factor - people moving from a marginal economy to one that offers better possibilities.

In the earliest societies, it was usually the weak or the adventurous who moved on, and until the advent of nationalism or organized state power it was fairly easy to find new land to exploit. Today all the hospitable land has been claimed by someone presumably ready to defend it. So we are faced on the one hand with political adjustments, and on the other with trying to come to terms with the less hospitable environment of certain parts of the globe. This should cause us some sober thoughts.

For those of us fortunate enough to prosper in a lightly populated portion of the world, while others enjoy a marginal existence amid heavy overpopulation, it should become more than an intellectual exercise to consider the implications. Knowledge and understanding of man's total environment, and of his interaction with that environment and with other men within it, becomes a vital importance.

How did man come to achieve the dominant place he occupies among the living organisms of the earth?

Man has become powerful simply because he is a freak! A physical weakling, as he evolved he developed not one but a number of odd but favourable physical characteristics.

Look at my hand. See how the opposed position of the thumb and forefingers make it possible for me to hold this gavel. This juxtaposition gave man a manipulative capability denied almost all other animals.

Note that you are sitting on the end of your spine - an erect spine which makes it possible for you to use your fore limbs for something besides support and locomotion.

Take a look at the eyes of the person next to you. Note how they are set. They form the base of a triangle which permits him without conscious effort to form a judgment about distance and size.

Now listen. Listen to your guest speaker. (I hope you have been listening) - but now pay attention carefully to the combination and range of sounds coming from my mouth. This marvellous vocal equipment above anything else has formed the basis of all the wonderful and complex systems of communication man has developed. All of them.

Now all these capacities alone combined in one creature would have set him apart, for not another has them all. But there is still another - the greatest capacity of all. Without it man would still be only one more animal. The possession of it sets him apart from all other living creatures. Think! Think! Think with the most highly developed physical equipment which has so far evolved on this earth - the human brain. It was a new kind of brain when it appeared - perhaps two million years ago - one part capable of controlling and guiding the rest of man's physical equipment, but another giving man awareness of not only all that was about him, but also awareness of the significance of his actions. It gave man the power of conscious activity and the awful responsibility which goes with it!

The last two made it possible for man to accumulate experience, and to consciously build for the future on the basis of the past. They are not what have made it possible for man to have a history (everything has a history) but they have made it possible for you, as historians, to record it and to interpret it and - if they will - for men to learn some lessons from it.

These specifications - particularly the last two - so fortunately combined, permitted man to develop culture; and for the first time in 212 billion years of global history, cultural change was substituted for biological change as a means of adaptation to environment. As a result - as we have pointed out - man has proliferated as no other creature over the globe - and even now is probing space for possible ways of increasing his range beyond the confines of this planet.

Man's power over nature has, in fact, made things too easy for him - and like most of his powers, he has abused it. Long ago he leapt to the conclusion that nature existed for his exclusive benefit. Almost consistently this has resulted in abuse and man's power over his environment soon came to include the power to destroy it.

At the same time, through cultural adaptation - by reducing infant mortality rate and prolonging natural life - he has developed almost unlimited ability to multiply. Together these add up to an almost unlimited compulsion to destroy environment - by ruining forests and fields, polluting air and water, and consuming non-renewable resources at a rate faster than he can produce them.

In many parts of the world this sequence of events occurred generations, even thousands of years ago. In some places the clock can never be turned back. In a few, only ages and the expenditure of billions can restore the conditions that will some day again yield crops to be harvested. Parts of this continent too have gone - many under the concrete and asphalt of urban development. The stricken countries of Asia and Africa lost out because of ignorance and lack of understanding of the problem. We have no similar excuse. That's why it becomes vital to understand our environment and why a Museum of Man and Nature is right for Manitoba just now.

By teaching the interaction of man with his environment, we are linking together the past, the present and the future in one great unifying theme.

So far I have talked a good deal about nature. I have in fact been talking about ecology. Ecology, as you know, is the organized body of knowledge which deals with the interrelationships between living organisms and their environment. This, of course, includes the living organism known as man, and clearly what I have been talking about is human ecology. What is its connection with history? Just this. To see environment as a whole we must start with a simple account of the raw materials which go into the making of environment, and we end with a look at the forces which mold human incentives and behaviour.

Now I'm going to attempt something bold. In the presence of this audience I'm going to talk about history.

Acknowledging first that there are other ways of interpreting history, let us look at the history of Manitoba from the point of view of environmental determination.

Archaeologists have pushed the arrival of man in Manitoba several thousand years before the arrival of the European. The cultural signs he left behind him are scanty - first a few stone and bone tools, later a little crude pottery, some wooden tools and a little ornamentation. In Manitoba, the life of the prehistoric native could have been little more than a savage struggle for a marginal subsistence with a severe and often cruel environment.

Maybe somewhere on this continent there existed the conditions for the idyllic existence of Rousseau's noble savage. If they did, they were far from Manitoba. To talk of comfort for the pre-contact native of this region is to consider the fleeting days when his belly was full, his enemies were thwarted, and he had time to relax between extremes of climate.

European man appears first between 250 and 300 years ago. Hardy and resourceful though he is and backed by centuries of advanced culture, he is utterly dependent on nature - not only for the furs which attract him, but also for life itself. For more than two centuries he dominates the scene, harvesting a fluctuating crop. He makes a go of it by constantly adapting his methods to the changing conditions of his environment. Finally, having exhausted his resources, and having left nothing behind but his knowledge of the country, he retreats. When he does, it is to make way for a new economy - but one even more dependent on environment than fur-trading.

Farming in several ways resembles the fur-trade. It is dependent on the bounty of nature and its markets tend to be distant and difficult to influence. But in other respects they are totally unlike each other. The fur-trade existed for more than two centuries without leaving a mark on the basic environment. The relationship between man and environment required constant adaptation of the former to the latter. But where the forests and streams yielded their crop of furs and food to the trader without alteration, the land had to be cleared and tilled before the farmer could harvest a crop.

So the farmer was forced to alter his basic environment and in doing so established a new relationship with it. Once tilled, the land would never be the same and would demand a bond between man and environment that the former would break at his peril. Land might pass from hand to hand, even from generation to generation, but the basic relationship had to prevail - a profound respect for the soil, and a decent solicitude for the processes which made it possible to draw life from it.

When the Selkirk settlers arrive on the Red River, as your menu correctly points out, they find old Chief Peguis and the Saulteaux growing maize at the mouth of Netley Creek; but the first real efforts at soil and animal husbandry are introduced by the hardy Scots themselves. As the Red River colony develops, half-breed, Orcadian, de Meuron and Canadien pay a little more than lip service to the land so that in time the needs of the colony and the trade are met. But as Professor Morton points out for the first fifty years an uneasy balance between the river lot and the buffalo hunt exist, not only because it is necessary, but also because of the romantic attractions the chase has over the dull drudgery of the life of ploughsman and herdsman.

Farming as an industry only began to flourish towards the end of the 19th century. Since then it has become the province's prime industry. It has expanded to include all of the ready arable land and much more, and the wealth it has produced has multiplied itself many times. This has been possible because the Manitoba farmer has, by and large, learned to respect that bond of which I have spoken; but the fertility of the soil, climate, insects and fungus have remained the factors which determine his productivity.

Perhaps we should glance back and look at the Selkirk settler again. The later problems of the Manitoba farmer were small alongside his, for he had to cope not only with the vicissitudes of climate, insects, and his own ignorance of farming methods, but with the Nor'Westers as well. I need not dwell before this audience on the rivalry between the North West Fur Trading Company and Lord Selkirk, except to note that it had its origins in the rivalry between two resource-based economies - the flourishing fur-trade and the potential agrarian economy which Selkirk's policy forecast.

It is not accidental that when the Nor'Westers struck, they used as their instruments the people most likely to be affected by that rivalry the Métis. Themselves, the by-product of the fur-trade - at once its dependents and its support - they were tied economically to one of the greatest natural resources North America has ever produced - the buffalo. It is not, therefore, surprising that the decline of the Métis as an effective unified force in the Canadian west coincides with the decimation of the herds.

As the buffalo economy is retreating the wheat economy is preparing to advance.

In the interval between, Riel's brief meteor flashes across the western firmament. Wiser than his brothers, he prods into being a political structure which in the long run fails to benefit his own people. Instead, attracted by the prospect of cheap land, and assured by the stable government Riel has forced into existence, the forerunners of the province's great agrarian population flock in. Farmers from Ontario, farming Mennonites, farmers from south of the line, farmers from the Ukraine - the latter two introducing from separate experience the dry farming techniques which will make it possible for Manitoba to exploit its plains environment. This period too brings the Icelander, whose history is to become the history of Manitoba's fishing industry.

Manitoba's later history also has environmental overtones. The land fills up, the forest industries begin, the Canadian Shield yields its power and its minerals, and Metropolitan Winnipeg, to which all else is tributary, continues to straddle the communications route, and grow, and grow, and grow.

Well, as I said, I chose in this too brief survey to look at Manitoba from an environmental viewpoint, and perhaps it has been too narrow and oversimplified for some of you. If you have found it so, I ask you to consider this: Canada has never embarked on a war of conquest; apart from the two brief brushes with Riel, we in the west have known no warlike experiences within our borders. It has been said that in such a country, "History is primarily the story of the struggle with the natural environment; first to wrest from it the bare means of physical survival, and later to create from the resources of the country the wealth from which a civilization can be built."

Manitoba is a resource-based province. Its industries are largely extractive. It is also, as I pointed out earlier, a melting pot which has not had time to melt. As a result, the lines of difference between people of different cultures and origins are clearly visible. I would add to what Dr. Parr has said about environment and history the concept of Sir Lewis Namier, which I find particularly pertinent to Manitoba. He said, in effect, "It is impossible to understand the political, cultural, social or economic history of a country separately. You must study them all together." This means that if you would understand the political history of Manitoba, understand first the economic and social forces which have been active - and if you would understand these, study first the culture of the people who settled here and the environment they found and worked in.

This is the justification for a Museum of Man and Nature.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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